It's safe to say that Emily Brontë's famed 1847 novel Wuthering Heights has seen more that its fair share of screen adaptations; IMDb lists fifteen such entries . Somehow, I'd only seen the 1939 William Wyler version with Merle Oberon, Laurence Olivier, and David Niven, a rather flowery, stiff affair that carries the strong whiff of being based on important literature. That early version tells the story, but little else is conveyed by its capable performers and workmanship-like production.
When it was announced some time back that Andrea Arnold's next film would be a new take on Wuthering Heights, it seemed an odd fit. Her work on Fish Tank and Red Road had shown her to be one of the most promising contemporary directors on the British scene, garnering positive comparisons to the social realist cinema of Ken Loach. But how, exactly, would the application of her most lauded techniques--the use of handheld cameras, wide-open, dialogue-free spaces, and an emphasis on the environments in which her characters live--work when set against a 19th century period piece? Incredibly well, it turns out.
Andrea Arnold's Wuthering Heights isn't like most period pieces. If there's a comparison to be had, it's with Jane Campion's last feature, the magnificently composed Bright Star. Both pieces shed the sterility so often associated with costume dramas, dirtying up the clothing worn by the characters and allowing period dialogue to flow from the actors mouths in an organic manner that communicates both its basis in reality and its meaning. It's an approach that offers a sense of life to what might otherwise come off as nothing more than filmed theater.
As with her prior projects, Arnold's take on this material engages deeply with issues of class and gender. She's also recast Brontë's Heathcliff (Solomon Glave as the younger version, James Howson as the elder one) as Afro-Carribbean, adding a telling analysis of racial inequity via Heathcliff's struggle to seen by his adopted family and loved openly by his Catherine (Shannon Beer as an adolescent, Kaya Scodelario as an adult).
None of these concerns are forced, as Arnold integrates everything into a film that quietly watches over the lives of these people, observing their emotional lives and circumstances, rather than placing the audience into a formally set stage where the actors project performative representations of lives lived. Arnold slowly paints these characters in additive strokes that cumulatively forms the framework for her retelling of the story.
Highly supportive to this bold vision is the work of cinematographer Robbie Ryan who has crafted the best version of the visual style they've been exploring during his long-running collaboration with Arnold. Ryan's camera imparts the chill of the landscape, the smell of the earth, and the warmth (and great lack thereof) of the bodies that roam these spaces. When Heathcliff sorrowfully lies back in the pouring rain, there's a sense of danger and urgency promoted by the imagery that's palpable to the senses.
Fish Tank was the best film I saw in 2010. Wuthering Heights is among a handful of titles from 2012 that I expect to be thinking about and revisiting for years to come. Andrea Arnold is more than just a promising talent; she may be the best working director out there. Wuthering Heights, like all of her films thus far, isn't fashioned for those expecting quick thrills, easy explanations, or happy endings, but it is a great work of art made at a time where, more and more, art films seem to be falling out of fashion. My advice: resist giving in to your reservations about slow cinema, period dramas, and art films. Wuthering Heights may not be for everyone, but to my own set of aesthetic sensibilities, it's exactly the kind of cinema that I want to see when I go to the movies.
Wuthering Heights begins its run at Cinema 21 on Friday, October 12th. More info available here.
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